We bumped into an Opposition TD in the corridor.
“Slim pickings today,” he sympathised. “It’s hard to heckle Ministers with those masks on. Sorry about that.”
The face mask is the enemy of the heckle.
Muffled squawks are no substitute for piercing interventions.
A decent spot of barracking is usually part and parcel of the budget day experience, but most deputies held back this year, preferring not to sound like they were talking through a mouthful of marrowfat peas.
This inconvenient outbreak of suffocating civility allowed Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath to glide through their budget speeches relatively untroubled. Lambasted they were not.
At least Michael Fitzmaurice kept his end up, bellowing from beyond the perimeter rail about the carbon tax.
"What about rural Ireland? Shame on you. Shame on you!" boomed the Roscommon-Galway Independent, who is a farmer and agricultural contractor. "What about middle Ireland, driving to work? Screwing them, that's what you're doing."
While the two Ministers worked through their scripts, Sinn Féin's first responders prepared their replies. Pearse Doherty (marking Paschal) and Mairéad Farrell (shadowing Michael) got busy with their highlighter pens while in the row behind, official anorak Eoin Ó Broin got stuck into the nitty-gritty of the accounts.
For the 90 minutes it took the two Ministers to do their thing, Eoin never let up. If he wasn’t feverishly writing on sheets of A4 paper he was belting away on the keyboard attached to his iPad or punching numbers into the calculator on his phone. The detailed budget document was on his lap and he flicked back and forth through it, occasionally consulting the closely written pages of a hardback notebook open on the ledge in front of him.
Leo walked back to his office after the Cabinet meeting, casually carrying his Cabinet papers in a SuperValu plastic bag. Very Matt Damon
Only when Pearse or Mairéad turned around looking for a steer did he break off from the typing and writing. Sometimes, when a Minister paused, the only sound in the snoozy chamber was the relentless tap-tapping from Ó Broin.
Oh dear. Perhaps he’s bringing out another book for Christmas.
The day began with the traditional brandishing of the budget statements on the steps of Government Buildings. The Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Expenditure were over half an hour late for their photocall but, in a stroke of luck, the notoriously camera-shy Leo Varadkar was forced to walk past the photographers on three occasions.
The first was when he walked back to his office after the Cabinet meeting, casually carrying his Cabinet papers in a SuperValu plastic bag. Very Matt Damon. Not, of course, that Leo would have made that connection.
Then he walked through the courtyard with a number of advisors, to the silent awe of a party of tourists outside the gate, only to return a short time later holding a takeaway cup of coffee and what appeared to be some class of ice-pop.
Finally, the two Ministers appeared, delighted with themselves. They were accompanied by an angst of advisors, who walked them to the steps.
Paschal and Michael looked very smart in their smart, non-budget budget suits. One of the advisors spat on a hankie and wiped a smudge off Michael’s scrunched-up face while another spat on his hand and smoothed down Paschal’s little quiff.
Actually, no, they didn’t. That was done before everyone walked outside.
The second tradition was upheld by the Ceann Comhairle at the start of proceedings when the prayer was followed by the performance of the annual budget joke. They all know what’s coming but it never fails to get a laugh.
Seán Ó Fearghaíl reminded the TDs not to leak budget details and to respect the confidentially of the information until the Ministers announced it.
Knocks ’em dead, every time.
“That was not meant to be a cause of levity,” deadpanned the Ceann Comhairle, before succumbing to a sneaky smirk.
Then the ushers filed into the chamber and fanned out among the benches, distributing the weighty documents to the ravenous deputies. It’s normally the early highlight but Mary Lou McDonald’s monochrome tartan kitten heel shoes stole the show for some envious observers.
Svelte father of two Paschal flaunted his Eurogroup curves in a grey suit while father of seven Michael’s flattering navy suit showed he hasn’t held onto any of that baby weight.
Well done, boys! How do they do it?
The third tradition of honouring the Budget Speech Reply Cliches was faithfully observed by Sinn Féin’s finance spokesman Doherty.
“This is the 13th time I’ve responded to a budget,” he told the chamber, which was shocking to hear.
Thirteen years, man and boy, listening to other people’s spending plan for the coming year.
Pearse Doherty, who normally burst a few eardrums with his annual speech, sounded quieter when he spoke. Another sign of subtle changes in the Shinners?
But those long years stood to the Donegal man on Tuesday. He was able to reprise the classics in his reply. Although he reverted to pre-pandemic mode when he began by referring to "Budget 2020".
“This budget is a reflection on the Government that delivered it: out of touch, out of ideas and out of time. Never has so much been spent to achieve so little. No answers, no urgency and no leadership.”
It should have been a budget of “vision” and “change”.
Any parts he welcomed he said were filched from the Sinn Féin alternative budget.
Back to the Government side, where the Ministers declared the country is enjoying the Covid “rebound”.
“We are in recovery,” announced Paschal, pointing to the “remarkable rebound” in the country’s jobs outlook. He talked about “anti-reverse hybrid rules”.
Michael quoted Nelson Mandela. He talked about bringing Ireland’s investment in capital to “almost 5 per cent of GNI star”.
The budget, by the way, is “anchored in a conviction that we can take the learnings from Covid . . .”
In the run-up to the big event, Sinn Féin’s approach to the nation’s finances was described by some commentators as showing a softening towards some aspects of its economic policy, particularly where middle-income earners and certain businesses are concerned. This, it was posited, was to make the party more attractive to more non-working class voters as it powers ahead in the polls.
And Pearse Doherty, who normally burst a few eardrums with his annual speech, sounded quieter when he spoke. Another sign of subtle changes in the Shinners?
Perhaps not, for following him was Mairéad Farrell of Galway West. She puts Pearse in the ha'penny place when it comes to voice projection.
As she neared the end of her high-decibel reply to Michael McGrath, colleagues took umbrage on her behalf, saying the Taoiseach was talking loudly as she was speaking. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle asked a highly affronted Micheál Martin to pipe down. He insisted he wasn’t talking. Later, he explained that McGrath had been showing him some figures from the National Plan, that was all.
“It’s so ignorant,” huffed Pádraig MacLochlainn.
Labour’s Ged Nash said that Paschal and Michael were “politically indistinguishable”. Like the entertainers Ant and Dec, one of them should stand on the left and the other on the right so people can identify them.
Funny, but after the announcement that contraceptives are to be available free to young people aged between 17 and 25, we kept looking at the pair of Ministers and thinking of The Two Johnnies.
Speaking of which, we understand Joe Duffy slept in an oxygen tent on Tuesday night to prepare for the reaction.